Never found far from open water, the stocky Belted Kingfisher has a short neck and tail and a large head. Somewhere between the size of a Blue Jay and an American Crow, and easily identified by its shaggy crest and a long, dagger-like bill, this kingfisher has a slate blue back and a white chest and belly. An adult male shows a single prominent gray-blue breast-band. Unlike many other species, though, the adult female (right) is a bit more ornate than the male, with 2 bands on her chest—not only the gray-blue band but also a rufous band below. Solitary except during breeding season, both males and females vehemently defend their territories along shorelines of lakes or rivers year-round with strident vocalizations. These distinct, mechanical-sounding rattles often announce the bird’s presence long before you see it. Belted Kingfishers can be found in our area year-round anywhere the water is open and the fish are swimming.
The Belted Kingfisher belongs to the world-wide Alcedinidae family, which splits into “forest” kingfishers and “fishing” kingfishers. (In elementary school, did you learn a song about Australia’s Kookaburra? Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree. Merry, merry king of the bush is he…” That Kookaburra is a member of the “forest” kingfishers.) As one of the “fishing” kingfishers, a Belted Kingfisher indeed eats mainly fish less than 6” long; larger fish can be challenging for the bird to swallow. It also consumes crustaceans (crayfish are a big favorite), insects, herptiles, nestling birds, small mammals, and even berries at times. It spends considerable time watching for prey from a bare branch over water or telephone wires strung along a shoreline. It can also hover 10 – 40 feet above the water to spot food.
Belted Kingfishers excavate a nest burrow in a steep earth bank, usually close to water. Both sexes assist in digging a 3- to 6-foot-long horizontal burrow, with the nest compartment located at the end. Breeding season for these birds lasts about 50 days: 3 weeks for incubation and 4 weeks from hatching to fledging. The adults teach their young to fish by dropping dead prey into the water for the kids to retrieve. The parents help the young learn to forage on their own for up to 3 weeks after fledging but then the family scatters.
The species’ common name ranks as one of the more concretely descriptive names around. “Belted” refers to the 1 or 2 bands across the adult’s chest; “kingfisher” simply ranks it as the best of fishing birds. In sharp contrast, a variety of complicated legends lie behind the Belted Kingfisher’s scientific name (Megaceryle alcyon). Several stories involved mortals and half-gods pretending to be gods and irritating Zeus (who, if you think back over Greek mythology, seems to be easily riled). A simpler—although also magical—tale arises from the Greek word kerulos (anglicized to ceryle), which was a mythical bird falling in the “halcyon” family of fabled sea birds. This kingfisher was thought by the Greeks to breed and nest on the Aegean Sea during the winter calm period that lasted 14 days around the winter solstice (December 21 or 22). Nest building—directly on the surface of the water!—lasted 7 days followed by a lightning-speed 7 days to lay eggs and rear their young. (No sense dawdling if you’re mythical, I guess.) This period of calm waters surrounding the winter solstice came to be known as the “halcyon days,” after this family of fantastical sea birds—giving rise to the Belted Kingfisher’s species name of alcyon. The “mega” of Megaceryle simply points out the large size of these species.
So as we enter December—a month often filled with hassles, frenzy, and stress—remember the calmness of the original “halcyon days” and the Belted Kingfisher bearing their name. Here’s to a peaceful holiday season!
To hear this kingfisher’s strident rattle call and learn a bit more about this kingfisher, click here.